Why and How to use icons in destination advertising

Most destination advertising campaigns face the dilemma of whether to include a destination’s most famous features or – in tourism marketing parlance – its ‘icons’.   After all, icons are seen as major drawcards for potential visitors.  From the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon, the Parthenon, the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall, and Waikiki to Venice’s gondoliers, South Africa’s wildlife, Rio’s Carnival, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and Japan’s cherry blossom festivals to German beer and the Aussie barbeque, icons have been fundamental to destination promotion.

From a strategic marketing perspective they tend to be more important for attracting packaged, group travellers than independent travellers; that is, the traditional ‘sightseer’.  And from an overall destination management perspective an overemphasis on icons can lead to infrastructure bottlenecks in areas such as transport access and accommodation.  However their importance to place marketing is unquestionable.

Yet for established destinations stakeholders typically question whether their continued use is necessary or even desirable.  The arguments for not using them include:

  • They are ‘one dimensional’ and get in the way of telling audiences about other aspects of the destination and building a broader, more compelling brand story.
  • Their continued use projects a destination as stagnant, lacking in new news and vibrancy.
  • They negate the ability to create original and cut-through advertising.

For example, the new ‘You’ll love every second in Sydney’ campaign from Destination NSW has attracted criticism for falling back on tried and true images of the Opera House.

Love Every Second Opera House, Destination NSW

The value of icons

The reality is that stakeholders are typically more negative about the value of icons than are potential visitors.  For people that have yet to visit a place its icons are both ‘must see’ reasons to travel and rich repositories of meaning.  The appeal of seeing the Pyramids is just as great for today’s first time visitors as it was for their grand-parents.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the original definition of ‘icon’ is something that is “an enduring symbol” and “a concept with great cultural significance to a wide cultural group”.  Mount Kilimanjaro is not just another snow-capped peak.  It symbolises the grandeur and mystery of Africa, the age of adventure and discovery, the romantic view of safari as popularised by writers such as Hemingway, and more.

Experience with ad tracking of Australia’s international tourism campaigns has shown them to be important tools for effective advertising.  Apart from their inherent attractiveness, they add value in two other ways.

  • Generating attention:  Because they are admired icons get audiences to engage with the communications.   The reality is people don’t pay that much attention to advertising.  As such, destination advertising, like all advertising, has to fight to be noticed.
  • Branding:   They help to ensure that audiences correctly link the advertising to the destination. Outside of ‘iconic’ images, many other images used in tourism communications are similar to multiple destinations.  Icons anchor the advertising to the brand.

How to get the most from icons

To both retain the benefits and address the potential negatives of using icons, a specific approach to how to use them needs to be applied.

In simple terms this is about using images that show the icon in a way that is clearly different from its traditional imagery.  This can be new perspectives, angles or lighting or presenting them in a different context.

Expanding on this, icons can be made a part of a new destination story.  Acting as a ‘prop’ rather than being the centrepiece of the communications.   One of the executions from the Destination NSW campaign attempts this, using the Sydney Harbour Bridge as the backdrop to an experiential moment that looks to enhance Sydney’s ‘romantic’ credentials for young couples.  (This execution probably doesn’t show enough of the bridge and harbour vista to get the full benefit from it.  But nonetheless is a reasonable example of the technique).

Love Every Second Kiss, Destination NSW

A variation on this is showing the icon in conjunction with a different aspect of the destination that its brand strategy is looking to add to the consumer perception of it.

For instance, the ‘Experience Seeker’ segment being pursued by Tourism Australia (and almost every state tourism organisation in Australia) wants to – amongst other things – interact with the local people and lifestyle, and be involved in day-to-day culture.  Targeting this segment then involves finding different (if not unique) elements of a destination that match with these interests and making them part of the promised brand experience.

By weaving icons and these elements together, destination advertising can build on the equity contained the icons and use their branding power to expand the destination story.

A good example of these principles can be found in the following print ads from the ‘Incredible India!’ campaign.  These leverage the iconic appeal of the Taj Mahal by showing it from new perspectives and blending it with the ‘exotic’ cultural experiences sought by ‘Experience Seekers’.

Incredible India Taj Mahal Reflection

Incredible India Taj Mahal Cloths

Incredible India Taj Mahal Camels

That the Taj is credited with being “the most photographed monument in the world” lends support to this approach being adaptable to the advertising of any destination with icons at its disposable.

Image Credits: Destination NSW, Ministry of Tourism – Government of India

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One thought on “Why and How to use icons in destination advertising

  1. Glenn, A really interesting article with some wise counsel for destinations of all sizes that are using icons. You have successfully identified many of the opportunities and pitfalls that they need to be aware of. I particularly like your reference to congestion and infrastructure bottlenecks, and the need to disperse visitors more widely for greatest economic impact.

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